The Misplaced Grave of Grant Green

I.

To say that I have an obsession with cemeteries would not be entirely correct. I have no particular affinity for the corpses themselves, nor the coffins in which they forever rest. Nor am I preoccupied with death. I mean, I’m slightly occupied with death, but I’m even more so occupied with life, so… you know, it is what it is. No, it’s not the cemeteries I love so much as the gravestones themselves. A weathered tombstone, especially if it is an old one, is my version of a sunny summer day. There is something romantically tragic about old tombstones; it’s like they’re the only remaining relic to show that “so and so” was here. His/her life is gone, and all they knew is lost, and everyone they loved may be dead, but there, standing in the ground, taking the brunt of the weather, remaining indifferent to the changes that unfold around it, and calmly enduring the passage of time, is the tombstone marking an erstwhile existence. A faded name, a date, and a possibly a couple of words about who lies below the stone in question; that’s what a human life gets reduced to. And even then, the best tombstones last only a few hundred years and then they too are gone. Everything ultimately moves toward the dust of forgotteness.

Now, If I am obsessed with tombstones, I am even more obsessed with jazz music. On this topic I have ranted at length elsewhere and, I flatter myself, to great effect. I need not retell the story of how jazz music changed my life. However, as an interesting addendum to that story, allow me to share with the reader the account of how Grant Green and his peerless music came into my life. (And this account involves a cemetery and a tombstone, so it behooves the reader to keep in mind the ramblings of the preceding paragraph.)

II.

I go through musical phases. I suspect most people do. There are times in my life where all I listen to is jazz, or even just one particular jazz musician. Freddie Hubbard, say. Other times, I want nothing to do with jazz and I ignore it for months or even years. I will always come back to it, however; and usually my return involves a renewed interest in finding new or obscure artists. I went through such a phase a few months ago, when it became my singular obsession to track down and obtain every single album that Blue Note produced in the 1960s. This took me to the music of Bobby Hutcherson, who is perhaps the best vibraphonist to have ever lived. (I could write an entirely separate essay on my love for Hutcherson. Perhaps I will.) While I had heard of Hutch before this, I never sampled his music. To me, if one wanted good vibe jazz, one deferred to Milt “Bags” Jackson. After encountering Hutch, however, I quickly understood that Bags is to Hutch what Bird is to John Coltrane. The former set the bar; the latter raised it.

In perusing the albums on which Hutcherson played as a sideman, I discovered Idle Moments, a 1964 album by the guitarist Grant Green, a name which with I was unfamiliar at that time (this is perhaps baffling, since Grant Green grew up only ten minutes from where I did; albeit fifty years earlier). I noted that saxophonist Joe Henderson also played on the album. Henderson’s Inner Urge and Page One were already among my standard go-tos whenever I desired sax jazz,[1] so it I felt I should inspect this Idle Moments, since it contained the work of both Hutch and Henderson.

aod64xq4x5kz
Grant Green, c. 1961

I downloaded the album and played the first song, “Idle Moments.” I was only a few seconds into it before I had Wikipedia pulled up to Grant Green’s bio page. Within a matter of minutes, I had downloaded every album Green made in the 1960s, and for the next month or so I listened to nothing else.

III.

There is something quite singular about the music of Grant Green. He is perhaps not the greatest jazz guitarist of the classic age (I’d likely defer to Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell for that distinction), but he is nevertheless my favorite. Green plays improv bop phrases with such a bluesy tone and a paradoxical blend of mania and subtletythat he pulls from the music contradictory innuendos that you didn’t know were there. A few movements of his fingers over the frets of a guitar and you don’t know whether to cry or laugh or make love.

I offer two selections as proof.

Exhibit A: “Cool Blues” (Born to Be Blue, 1962). This cover of a Charlie Parker song embodies everything that makes jazz so wonderful. If you had only one song to listen to for the rest of your life, one song from which to derive your knowledge of jazz and the sound that makes it, you could get by swimmingly with just Grant Green’s “Cool Blues” alone. (Side note: the piano work of Sonny Clark on this track is unrivaled).

Exhibit B: “Work Song” (Iron City, 1967). The impressive organ work of Big John Patten aside, Green’s listless yet emotive guitar solos in this song showcase a virtuoso firmly in his element, and that element is the palliative crossroads between jazz and blues, a junction where magic happens.

One other song in particular, “Bedouin” (Matador, 1964), became my anthem during the spring of 2018. I just played it over and over, losing myself in Green’s proficiency and McCoy Tyner’s block chords from heaven. It got to the point where I was hearing it in my sleep… and smiling.

B3-AB957_grantg_GR_20180417125711
Green, in the early 1970s

He has a lyricism to his playing, a kind of sacred language that ebbs and flows with each movement of his fingers, doing mystical, otherworldly things on the guitar like Parker did on the sax and Davis did on the trumpet. Green’s jazz is a genuine jazz, unaffected, embodying the best overtures of his heart and the most logical profundities of his mind.

I sincerely do not believe that anyone, be they a fan of jazz or a stranger to it, can listen to his music and not be provoked in some deep place inside, nor come away from the experience wholly untouched.

IV.

On a dreary afternoon in May that spring, after learning that Green was buried in a small cemetery near his boyhood home, and having nothing better to do that day, I decided to get into my car and go pay my respect to his grave. I no longer lived in the same area I was raised in, so the drive took me about half an hour, and though it wasn’t raining hard when I left, it was pouring once I arrived. Still, the discomfort notwithstanding, I wasn’t going to let the rain deter me from my goal.

The cemetery is called Greenwood (though that name has no affiliation with Grant Green’s surname). To say that it’s in a derelict part of town is putting it mildly. Ghettos, regardless of what demographic populates them, always make me sad, and the sorry one in which Greenwood Cemetery is nestled made me downright depressed. I was unhappy to think that Green, an icon of American music (if not a slightly overlooked one) should be resting eternally in such a miserable place.

Capture
Greenwood Cemetery, seen from St. Louis Avenue (Google Maps)

The cemetery itself was incredibly small, so small that it seemed locating Green’s stone, the precise location of which I did not know, shouldn’t have been a difficult task. But I sat in my car for another ten minutes, hoping the rain would let up. At length, it did. I knew the ground would be wet, but I’ve suffered worse, so I got out of the car and proceeded to examine, row by row, the graves of Greenwood Cemetery, braving the mud, ignoring the specter of desolation that hung above that ghetto, and searching for the name Grant Green, born 1935, died 1979.

I got to the end of the last row, which butted against some dense trees and the backyard of a neighboring house, in which a little boy was watching me from a patio. I waved to him and smiled, and the gesture was returned, but a stone with Green’s name on it I did not find.

This is the Pocket Google era, so I pulled out my iPhone to double-check that I had the right cemetery. I did. I retraced my steps back to the beginning and conducted a second check, only slower this time. Again I reached the end without locating the misplaced grave of Grant Green. I stood there baffled for a few moments, wondering what to do next, thinking that perhaps there was another Greenwood Cemetery in the area. But there isn’t.

After a few moments I observed an old black man walking toward me, lurching as it were, as though he was only three or four paces away from keeling over. As he neared me, I saw in his face the kind of battered, wizened expression you only see on the very oldest of people who have lived so long that everything in their existence has been reduced to the sheer, simple joy of just waking up to find death has been staved off for one more day.

“What you looking for, son?” he wheezed, his voice betraying some outdated timbre indicative of another age.

“A certain grave,” I replied.

“Well, I gathered dat much. Can’t think of ‘nother reason to be picking ‘round these stones here. I mean who?”

“Grant Green,” I said. “The jazz guitarist. He’s supposedly buried here.”

“Yaw, he is. Don’t remember where, though. Somewhere ‘round here.”

“You know of him?”

“Of him? I knew him—” he hit his chest “—personally.”

“Are you shitting me?”

“Naw, sir. We was young together. Played together as children, though he was ‘bout ten years younger’un me.”

“What was he like?”

“Well now… as to that, I can’t rightly say. See, I knew the boy… the not the man. He didn’t come ‘round too much after he moved to New Yawk.”

“You don’t remember anything of note?”

He furrowed his brow in thought. “He was quiet,” the man said (this last word coming out as Kwy-ite). “And kinda shy, I think. But smart.” He tapped his head. “Real smart.”

Yeah, I thought to myself, he’d have to be to produce the kind of music he did.

“Well, I can’t find his grave,” I reminded him.

He looked around at the stones and then said, “Yeah, well, sometimes things don’t want to be found.”

His meaning wasn’t entirely clear to me. Then.

I spoke to the old man a while longer, and he told me that some of Green’s family was still in the area. Eventually, when it appeared the rain was going to pick up again, he offered his apologies and took his leave, lurching away as awkwardly as he’d come. I watched him go, then got into my car before the raindrops fell in earnest. Feeling slightly melancholy for some reason, I drove home, never having found the misplaced grave of Grant Green.

But, as I learned that day, sometimes things don’t want to be found. Sometimes it is far better to be left wanting than to achieve satisfaction, for it is the want that keeps us going.

_________________________________

[1] And now I shall speak a heresy: Henderson (as well as Hank Mobley) will always trump John Coltrane, in my book. Aside from Blue Train and some of his live material from the 1960s, I don’t have too much use for Coltrane. This is, I know, a minority view, and probably one for which I will be judged. Nevertheless.


Taken from my book, Collected Essays.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s